Jake LaMotta, who has died aged 95, is generally acknowledged as one of the toughest men to have entered a professional boxing ring – a world middleweight champion best remembered for having fought the great Sugar Ray Robinson on six occasions. Brought up in poverty, a teenage hoodlum, married seven times, imprisoned for pimping, a confessed rapist and sometime actor and standup comedian, LaMotta led a life that reads like a film script and was the basis for the greatest boxing movie of all time, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980).
Robert De Niro won an Oscar for his portrayal of the violent, paranoid, wife-beating LaMotta, who had nevertheless endeared himself to the American public at a time when boxing was a hugely popular spectator sport, commanding enormous newspaper coverage, with his almost unbelievable feats of bravery within the ring. The film was based on LaMotta’s memoirs, Raging Bull: My Story (1970), co-written with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage, and republished on several occasions.
LaMotta would boast, “no son-of-a-bitch ever knocked me off my feet” – not strictly true as he was floored in one of his last fights, by Danny Nardico in 1952. He was a fine example of the sort of fighter prepared to absorb numerous punches to land more telling blows of his own.
Born Giacobbe LaMotta in the Bronx neighbourhood of New York, he had an impoverished childhood and told of how his father – a Sicilian by birth and the only man he feared, owing to the regular beatings – would force him into fights with other children. The loose change thrown into the ring by the adult spectators helped to pay the family’s rent. Living a feral life and frequently in trouble with the law, he spent time in the notorious Coxsackie Reformatory for delinquent youths after being convicted of attempted burglary.
But he was scarred for many years by another incident in which he believed he had beaten to death a man he had mugged. LaMotta had followed Harry Gordon, a neighbourhood bookie, whom he knew, as he carried his day’s takings, and attacked him with a piece of lead piping. The subsequent beating was so savage that he left the man for dead before escaping with a wallet full of cash. It was only years later, when “the ghost” – as LaMotta described him – turned up in his dressing room, still bearing the scars of the attack, to offer his congratulations after LaMotta had won the world middleweight title in 1949 from France’s Marcel Cerdan, that “the Bronx bull” realised he was not a murderer after all.
It was a crime to which LaMotta confessed in his memoirs, published after the bookie – who never knew the identity of his assailant – had died. The fighter also admitted to having raped a woman as well as beating the women he married. He spoke of one particular attack on his second wife, Vicki, attempting to explain his behaviour: “If you had a girl and she was beautiful and other people were trying to invite her out and seduce her, wouldn’t you get angry? I saw these jerks and schmucks coming out with lines and it bothered me. But I never really and truly hit my wives. If I had hit them properly, they would be dead.”
LaMotta could turn on the charm when it suited, and had a comedian’s sense of timing with his anecdotes and one-liners, which continued to earn him a living several decades after the paid fighting had ended. His movie credits included a bit-part in The Hustler (1961), starring Paul Newman, along with a cameo with another former boxer, Rocky Graziano, in the Sophia Loren film Firepower (1979). Bigger roles included low-budget films such as Chivato (1961) and House in Naples (1965), and he later cashed in on his Raging Bull success with a bigger part in Hangmen (1987). A bit-part followed in Mob War (1989).
He periodically owned bars and nightclubs and was much in demand after the release of Raging Bull, for which he personally tutored De Niro, and was still touring autograph ceremonies and attending the annual Boxing Hall of Fame celebration in Canastota, New York, until fairly recently.
LaMotta turned professional in 1941, quickly becoming a crowd favourite because of his style of pressure fighting. His great rivalry with Robinson – regarded by many as the best pound-for-pound fighter of all time – began the following year, when Robinson won a 10-round points decision at Madison Square Garden, New York. In 1943, in Detroit, LaMotta would become the first man to defeat Robinson when he knocked him through the ropes in the eighth round. Robinson was saved by the bell, but was outpointed. The fighter had beaten the boxer and the crowds begged for more.
Although it seems incredible in the modern era, the rematch took place in Detroit only three weeks later. This time, Robinson got the judges’ verdicts, despite having been put on the canvas once more in a fierce battle. They would fight twice more in 1945, with Robinson taking a unanimous decision in New York and then being awarded a fiercely disputed split decision in Chicago. The pair would not face one another again until six years later, this time for a world championship.
LaMotta went on to win the undisputed world middleweight title four years later. But the circumstances of the Bronx bull getting his title shot resulted in him being suspended from boxing and having his purse withheld in 1947 by the New York State Athletic Commission after he lost a fight that he would later confess had been rigged by the mafia. In an era when the mob effectively controlled boxing, LaMotta had been told that to get his chance at the title, he had no alternative other than to lose his contest against Billy Fox, as mob figures demanded.
The fight – such as it was – ended in the fourth round with LaMotta standing still, allowing Fox to hit him at will. In 1961, he testified to a senate committee investigating mafia involvement in boxing, saying he had lost deliberately. He subsequently wrote: “By the fourth round, if there was anyone in Madison Square Garden who didn’t know what was going on, he must have been dead drunk.”
LaMotta made two successful world title defences before losing in 1951 to Robinson in what has become known as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, held at the Chicago Stadium. LaMotta’s strength gave him the lead after eight rounds, but he was flagging by the 11th when a last despairing barrage of punches failed to stop “the Sugarman”. Hammered mercilessly in the 12th, LaMotta swore and shouted: “You can’t do it, you can’t put me on the deck.” Although he was stopped in the next round, the crowd saluted his bravery and never forgot.
He continued to fight for a further three years but with patchy results, having taken to drink. Out of a total of 106 professional bouts, he won 83 (30 of them by knockout) and lost 19, with four draws.
Two sons, Jake Jr and Joseph, predeceased him. LaMotta is survived his seventh wife, Denise (nee Baker), whom he married in 2013, and by four daughters, Jacklyn, Christi, Elisa and Mia.
• Giacobbe “Jake” LaMotta, boxer, born 10 July 1921; died 19 September 2017